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Sri Lanka, a cautionary tale for South Asian governments

17 July 2022
Sri Lanka, a cautionary tale for South Asian governments

Mani Shankar Aiyar :
When I first met Mahinda Rajapaksa at a conference of women panchayat members at Avdhash Kaushal's training institute in Dehradun in the mid-Nineties, he was a modest backbencher in the Sri Lankan parliament with an impassioned interest in local self-government which he believed was the only way to govern his fractious nation. Empowering the people for self-government seemed to be his primary preoccupation. When he became PM, he invited me, as Minister of Panchayati Raj, to Colombo to address a mammoth meeting of elected local government representatives gathered from all over the island-nation in the impressive Bandaranaike Hall (their equivalent of our Vigyan Bhawan) and obliged most of his cabinet ministers to also attend. This was followed by a detailed interaction with a group of experts he had put together to draft an amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution that drew its inspiration from our 73rd and 74th amendments, initiated by Rajiv Gandhi.
While his arch political opponent, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, warned me repeatedly to not trust the old fox, I continued my cordial relationship with Mahinda because I saw no reason to get entangled in the coils of our island neighbour's internal affairs.
Soon thereafter, however, Mahinda lost all interest in panchayat raj in Sri Lanka as he became obsessed with terminating - by brutal military action - the ongoing three-decades-long insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Once he inducted his brothers, Gotabaya and Basil, into his active circle, the only priority became military action to root out the LTTE, whatever the cost in lives, limb and property to the local Tamil population. This was much applauded by the Sinhala Buddhist population at large. He thought he was now destined to rule his realm forever.
The 2015 elections came to Mahinda as a big blow. Contrary to all his expectations, a combined Opposition, put together largely at Kumaratunga's initiative, led to his defeat, and he retired out of sight and out of touch, growling like an injured tiger. Astonishingly, the Rajapaksas returned when splits within the coalition stitched together in 2015-16 by Kumaratunga started unravelling at the seams, offering Gotabaya the opportunity of becoming president in November 2019, followed by elections in August 2020, where Mahinda triumphed overwhelmingly.
Drunk with power, Mahinda brazenly set up a government with himself as prime minister; his brother Gotabaya as president; his other brother Basil, as finance minister; and his son, Namal, as yet another Rajapaksa minister with the sports and youth affairs portfolio. Another brother, Chamal, became minister of irrigation, and Chamal's son, Shasheendra, was accommodated as MoS Agriculture. Besides, Mahinda's brother-in-law, Nishantha Wickramasinghe, was appointed head of Sri Lankan Airlines. And Mahinda's other son, Yoshitha, was elevated to the powerful post of the prime minister's chief of staff. Nothing now, Mahinda seemed to believe, could stop him and his family, especially as the Tamil insurgency appeared to have been definitively wiped out, the Opposition was in total disarray and Kumaratunga had retired from active politics.
He seems not to have heeded the Greek saying, "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad".
Faced with a threatening overhang of unpaid debts amounting to over $51 billion, the Rajapaksas thought they had found a magic potion in organic farming and, without giving a thought to the time and training it would take to switch to nation-wide organic cultivation, virtually stopped Sri Lanka's massive imports of chemical fertiliser. This sharply impacted rice cultivation, the staple of the Sri Lankan diet, raising food prices to dizzying, unprecedented levels. It also sank the output and, therefore, the export earnings from tea, their principal source of foreign exchange.
Mismanagement of Covid led to such a wide spread of the pandemic that tourism, the single-most-important source of foreign exchange, came to a virtual standstill. Remittances from Sri Lanka's large expatriate community started drying up. For want of foreign exchange, imports of oil and petroleum products also fell far short of requirements leading to long frustrating queues at petrol stations and food stores.
The central bank is now left with reserves of no more than $25 million when Sri Lanka requires at least a billion dollars a month to keep itself afloat. Mahinda at first refused to go to the IMF, probably because he feared international reprimand for his economic policies that started with massive tax cuts that bled the Sri Lankan treasury. He thought his Chinese friends would bail him out, but they have been circumspect, not committing themselves to more than promising to view with sympathy the restructuring of the huge debt owed to them. Unthinking borrowing from China, symbolised by the white elephant of the Hambantota port in Mahinda's constituency, has disproportionately contributed to the present crisis.
India has come to the rescue with some $3.5 billion in emergency aid, but what a drop in the bucket this is may be seen from the fact that Sri Lanka needs a minimum of a billion dollars a month in international currency to import limited essential supplies of fuel, milk, medicines and even food items for its population, who have for months been struggling with acute shortages and long queues. Now, at long last, an approach has been made to the IMF, but the negotiations may take months. Inflation meantime has exceeded 50 per cent and threatens to rise to 70 per cent.
That is what has brought the masses onto Galle Face and the streets to demonstrate for long months, and now to occupy a number of government buildings including the Presidential Palace. Had Mahinda stuck to his original resolve to make panchayat raj the focus of his government, he would have received the feedback from the people and could have acted before they were obliged to take to the streets. Hubris has been his lot, and that of his family, because military victory against the LTTE unhinged his priorities. Instead of elected representatives at the local level, his family became his sounding board. This is what happens if the leadership lives in an echo chamber of mutual praise and backslapping. Sri Lanka's excellent record on human development - by far the best of any country of our region - is being dismantled because Mahinda gave up his initial prioritisation of people's power through democratic institutions of self-government. It is a lesson for all South Asian governments, including our own, to learn.

(The writer is a former Union minister of India. Courtesy: The Indian Express).

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